Thursday, May 12, 2011

Spring Greens: Pollo en Salsa Verde


I've noticed that the majority of the places and cultures I love most have several things in common: their family-centeredness, their focus on communal eating, their unabashed pride in their cultural heritage, their generosity and welcoming of guests, and their love of good, fresh, home-cooked food.  Add to this the culture and generational expertise of foraging and home-gardens and you nearly get the definition of what I aspire to in my life.

A phrase I never really appreciated until this year was the meaning of "spring greens."  Having just spent nearly a year in a land of deserts and non-greenness, I have truly begun to understand how much I personally love and revel in verdant landscapes and everything that goes with them.  This spring in Portland has been nothing short of magical for me, and I find myself marveling at the silliest things: the abundance of dandelions everywhere, the way birds are everywhere at all times of the day, the way that tree roots make the ground swell and drop, the acorns and squirrels who relentlessly scavenge them.  I was so starved of seeing nature - real, green, woodsy nature - that I'd almost forgotten what a miracle it is every single year to watch it come back to life after its long winter nap.  And I feel privileged to be able to further enjoy it in a very pedestrian city where, without plan or intention, even the spaces between two streets are painfully alive with all sorts of native wildlife - beautiful twisted trees, numerous wildflowers, wild - almost edibley green - grass.  Ah, grass.

And then I went to the grocery store and was almost blown away by the selection and availability of spring greens. Turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens, Beet greens, Spinach, Arugula, a million lettuces, Broccoli rabe, the aforementioned Fiddlehead Ferns.  And dandelions, of course.  And thank God for the latter because it saved Matt the embarrassment of me returning to that street corner where I discovered a particularly prolific patch of dandelion greens the other day that I fully intended to pick and eat.  
Apart from it being my favorite color, I could eat greens every single day and not get sick of it.  I love them fresh, boiled, steamed, barely sauteed.  I'll take them almost any way they come and preferably with some lemon juice on top.  Hot, cold, or room temperature.  They are a Spring incarnation for me, and just one of the many things I love about this time of year.  Here is a list of five things that particularly take my breath away:

Top 5 Green and Spring-y Things I Love
because, frankly, what's not to?

Broccoli Rabe.
5. Budding Trees
It's a hopeful, almost incredible sight for me, every year, when I find there are tiny, perfect little leaves starting to sprout from what I swore was a dead piece of wood.

4. The Dandelions Before They're Fuzzy
I love and have always loved the simplicity and beauty of those little yellow flowers and their weed-like but beautifully green accompanying leaves, all of which (including flowers) are edible and very tasty.

3. Dew on New Leaves
It's still just cool enough that in the mornings the trees and grass are covered in beautiful sea-air dew.  I love feeling drops of it plop on my hair and seeing my shoes and pants stained with it, and knowing that Spring is here.

2. Herbs
 The herbs are back and all over the country people are planting beautiful new little gardens which will season and accompany their food all summer long.  One goal this summer / spring: to use parsley as a side dish or salad, all by itself.

1. Grass
It's just one of my very favorite things.  And it's brilliant and everywhere right now.

Today I decided to make a spring green stew that is a version of a Mexican recipe I love: Espinazo de Cerdo en Salsa Verde.  I used chicken instead and picked up some fresh tomatillos, some broccoli rabe (my substitute for verdolagas, or purslane, these days) and some bone-on chicken breasts. Enjoy this on a still-kind-of-chilly Spring day like the ones we've been having here in Portland.
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Pollo en Salsa Verde with Spring Greens
Serves 4

This dish is a comfort food for me.  A similar thing is often made in Mexico using pork spine - espinazo - and verdolagas, or purslane, which lend it a much heartier flavor.  I love tomatillos and they are a typically Mexican flavor which is fresh, slightly sour and pairs very nicely with slightly bitter spring greens, like broccoli rabe.
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2 tbsp canola oil
2 large, bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts (or 4 small)
6-8 smallish tomatillos, halfed or quartered depending on size
1lb of broccoli rabe, washed and cut in half (stems / leaves florets)
1 large-medium or 2 small-medium potatoes, chopped into medium pieces
3 cloves garlic, crushed and roughly chopped
1/2 of 1 large can of Crushed Tomatillo Salsa
1-2 chicken bouillon cubes or 1-2 tbsp salt
2-3 cups water (as needed)
ground pepper

1. Add the oil to a large pot or dutch oven and heat over medium-high.  Add the onion and garlic then brown the breasts, skin side down, until the skin is crisp and golden brown, shaking the pot occasionally so the onions and garlic don't burn.  This should take 3-4 minutes.

2. Add the chopped tomatillos, potatoes, salsa, water (just enough to not-quite cover the chicken), bouillion, and pepper and give it a good stir; bring to a boil.

3. Turn the heat down and allow the stew to simmer for 40-50 minutes or until the meat is fall-apart tender.  Add the chopped broccoli rabe and simmer for 10 minutes before serving (to keep some crunch).  Or you can add it 30 minutes into cooking if you like soggier greens (which I do sometimes).

Serve alone or with white rice.
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Monday, May 2, 2011

Singing the Praises of Fiddlehead Ferns (and New England).

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In the Words of Scarlet O'Hara: Oh Fiddle-dee-dee.

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The whole "New England" thing has always kind of gone over my head.  I mean, I never refer to "New England."  I always just say "the east coast" when I talk about any state on, well, the east coast of the US.  I don't get the whole "Nantucket Reds" thing, I didn't grow up sailing or cheering for the Red Sox, and have always found the preppy boat-shoe / sweater-over-the-shoulders thing slightly nauseating.  It was always yadda yadda about the turning of the leaves in the fall, yakkity-yak on the idyllic summers on the Cape.  I just never got it.  Never had a particular inclination to get it.  In fact, I'm a little ashamed to say that it wasn't until 10 days ago as Matt and I made our trip to Portland for the first time that I was finally told that New England is strictly comprised of 6 specific states: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.  And in that 4-hour drive from Connecticut, we went through 5 of them.  Historic highways, railroad bridges, vast forests, rugged coastline and broken industrial cities all stretching through a piece of land that once belonged to the King of England, was host to some of the most pivotal moments in the American Revolution, bred some of America's boldest and brightest, and is still a melting pot of proud ethnicity and deep-rooted wealth.

But I have to admit that now that I live in Portland, Maine (even just after a week), I kind of get it.  Ok, I get it!  I really do.  It has been so beautiful here in Portland the past few days, I can hardly contain myself.  Roman's birthday was perfect - sunny, dry, breezy and full of spring.  As you walk on the Old Port, you can smell the sea in the air, hear the seagulls above you, and watch the ships and ferries go by.  You're a quick drive to the beach no matter what, and the seafood can't get any fresher than it does here.  The forests are astounding, the houses are charming, the people are kind, and the culture is alive and thriving.  As if I didn't need more reasons to love it here, today I had a random but welcome run-in with one of my long-time culinary curiosities that really drove home the whole "New England" thing: fiddlehead ferns.

I was driving back from grocery shopping, zooming down a street I though I'd never been down before, when suddenly, a few streets from one of the oldest, richest neighborhoods in Portland, I spot two men (in Boston Red Sox hats), a table and two giant cardboard signs propped by the side of the road that read "FIDDLEHEADS" in large black marker.  I immediately made a u-turn and went back, despite the two men looking less than savory.  As soon as I walked up, one of them called me "young lady," so all was forgiven. :)  They sold me a 1lb bag of freshly picked fiddlehead ferns for $5.00.  They had foraged them the day before and had several other such bags sitting on the table, waiting to be bought.  They told me to rinse them then either boil or sautee them and wished me a good day ahead.  I went home with a giant smile on my face because this was a quintessentially New England moment.  The beauty of small cities with an inseparable juxtaposition of working class and old money.  The greatness of foragers still existing in urban and suburban America, and taking the time and effort to handpick little ferns two or three weeks out of the year, then sell them on the side of the road for next to nothing (these ferns go for $20.00/lb on the West Coast!).  The delicious satisfaction of a region in the US that exemplifies a perfect blend of old and new, of rural and urban, of industry and sophistication, of smoke stacks and light houses, pizza and ports, fiddleheads and lobsters.  

I have to say, I like it here.

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New England's Finest Fiddles

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The first time I ever saw fiddlehead ferns was probably about 6 years ago in New York at Agata & Valentina, and they were too expensive for me to be willing to experiment with back then.  I didn't know then that they are a delicacy unique to New England (and especially prized in Maine and New Hampshire), and that their season is as frail and brief as they are, only lasting 2-3 weeks in May every year.  If the ferns, actually part of a plant called an Ostrich Fern, start to uncoil the plant becomes inedible giving foragers a 2-day window in which to pick them once they grow.  And they are only foraged, which only adds to the charm and appeal as far as I'm concerned.  All this means fiddleheads are scarce, coveted, and picked solely by hand and solely by people who know exactly where to look for them year after year.

I wanted to cook mine in butter and garlic but when I went to do it I noticed I'd used my entire stick of butter on dinner from two nights ago: steamed Maine Lobster with brown butter.  More on that later.  So I was forced to cook my fiddleheads in olive oil and garlic, but they were delicious.  I might have to go back to the little stand tomorrow, if the two guys are still there. 

I would recommend boiling them for 3-4 minutes in salted water, then placing them in an ice bath, and finally sauteeing.  Or you can sautee directly if you're into the whole brevity thing. :)  Either way, fiddleheads are a taste of real New England: woodsy and at-times elusive, but ever-so charming.

Amusing tips on foraging for and preserving Fiddlhead Ferns, from
"You’ll know a patch when you find it because these fiddleheads are not hairy, like most others, and they have a deep groove in the stem like a stalk of celery. Leave several from each plant to grow to mature fern leaves, or the patch will disappear forever and you will go to Hell where you will eat blueberry poptart for all of eternity."
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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Little Mr. Terrific is Two.

Opening Presents on his 2nd Birthday
Portland, Maine
My Little Mr. Terrific is Two Today.

How can I adequately express the excitement, pride, and disbelief I feel now that Roman is two?  I simply refuse to believe it was almost 3 years ago that Matt and I were riding around Greece on a moped singing Abba songs, carefree and clueless.  And I can't believe that exactly two years ago I was in London, meeting someone I feel I've known forever for the first time.  I can't believe one year ago he couldn't walk, talk, or feed himself.  And I really can't believe that in his short two years he's already lived in 3 different countries and visited / vacationed in 10!  I don't think I could claim to both of those things until I was in my 20s, and Matt had never even left the Eastern time zone until he was 19!  What a lucky, blessed little creation we have made and what a beautiful, happy life he has created for us.
At the Jolly Gardener Pub in Putney, London
July 2010
I have always wished I was able to remember more about myself when I was a toddler.  What I do know and what pictures I have seen are fascinating to me, both because I lived in a different country and because life as a toddler is a strange blend of dream and reality in certain ways.  You can't remember everything that happens, you don't take notice of the most obvious things (like leaving one country for another) and then you dwell on the strangest (like why you can't wear your sandals everyday anymore because it's too cold in Maine compared to Abu Dhabi).  You're left, at least in my case, with strangely colorful, poignant images that come and go, flash back and forth, and often details are blurry, and what you hope or wish was the case takes over what really ever happened. 

Al Ain Zoo
March 2011
For better or for worse, this is one part of being a child.  And yet, I can't help thinking Roman will one day enjoy to know some silly, funny little details about his habits, his interests and his many, special little peculiarities. 

Here are a couple of lists dedicated to my very favorite little person in the world: the most terrific two-year-old I know, my Romanorum Master Forum.  Happy Birthday, Mink. :)

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Top 5 Songs Roman Can Sing
in half-garbled sentences and random-hummings

Friedrich Von Trapp
Halloween 2010, Abu Dhabi
1. Life is a Highway by Tom Cochrane: Lightening McQueen's road trip is equally exciting every time.

2. Some Guys Have All the Luck by Rod Stewart: This is pretty much just how Roman rolls.

3. Mamma Mia by Abba (I have to say that this is proof that in utero listening does work)

4. Say Hey (I Love You) by Michael Franti: He loves to serenade me with this song - especially the "I love, I love you, I love you" part.

5. Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars: Which he changes to "Just the Way I Am." :)

Honorable Mention: Jingle Bells: He sings it every time he sees a snowman, Christmas tree, or Santa Claus in a picture, book, or display.  Or if I say the words Christmas or Connecticut.  And sometimes just randomly.

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Top 5 Things Roman Likes to Say
or tries to say

The Beach, Muscat, Oman
April 2011
1. "I love you.": This started a couple of months ago (along with the incessant need to hug and kiss me) and I never, ever get sick of it. 

2. "Hey look a _______!": Fill in the blank with any noun; he says this literally every time he shows you anything interesting that might be around at any given time.

3. "Oh no! Oh no!": His genuine concern when he says this is disarming and hilarious.

4. "Mommy wait!": He has taken to wandering off and yet he still becomes completely panicked every single time I tell him I'm leaving without him (even though I never do).

5. "Oh thank you Mommy, thank you!": I love that he says this with such uninhibited enthusiasm, and sometimes even without me telling him to.

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Top 5 Things Roman Loves

Roman and his truck
January 2011
1. Planes, Trains & Automobiles: He will literally play with cars all day if you let him; and never gets tired of finding new ones he likes or lining them up.

2. Strawberries: I think this is thanks to his British birth but Roman will eat an entire box of strawberries by himself if I let him.

3. Cake & its "derivatives": You know, chocolate, muffins, sweeties, more cake, etc.

4. Swimming: he can now propel himself by kicking and pulling with his floaties on, much like a seahorse. 

5. Running everywhere in his boots: he loves his boots, and he loves running, that's for sure.

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Top 5 Memorable Roman-Momentsin the past year

Christmas 2011
1. 14 Months: Roman learns to walk on the 4th of July, in Texas.

2. 15- 16 Months: We move to Abu Dhabi, UAE and Roman goes to his first water park and has his first day of school at Little Smarties Nursery.

3. 18 Months: Roman goes to Rome.

4. 19 Months: Roman learns to sing Jingle Bells, and finally grasps the concept of Christmas presents and Santa.

5. 21 -22 Months: Roman starts to really speak, a lot, and in sentences.  Then suddenly we just can't get him to stop - speaking, singing, screaming, humming, and even whispering.

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Swinging his boots at the Harbor Fish Market
Portland, Maine
Roman has no friends in Portland, Maine.  So today we'll be celebrating by maniacally opening presents, eating cake and muffins for breakfast, going on a ferry ride in the Portland harbor, then treating Roman to a giant ice cream sundae with a candle on top.  And if he's lucky and not half-dead from the sugar-high / exhaustion, we'll go catch a kids' movie at the theater. :)
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